Oberlin College Archives

MARY ELIZABETH JOHNSTON, 1890-1982

PAPERS, 1882 (1910-72)-1981, n.d.


BIOGRAPHY

Mary Elizabeth Johnston, black educator and librarian, was born in Sandusky, Ohio on August 22, 1890 to David Henry (1852-99) and Mary (Phillips) Johnston (1857-1932; enr. Oberlin 1878-81). Her siblings were Byron B. Johnston (1887-1952), a Colgate University graduate and porter with the Pullman Company, and Ruth Johnston Freeman (1895-1966; Oberlin Kindergarten Training School, 1915), a kindergarten teacher. The family moved from Sandusky to Oberlin, Ohio in 1900 following the death of David Johnston. Mary Elizabeth graduated from Oberlin High School in 1908, beginning her undergraduate studies in English literature at Oberlin College in 1910. Unable to maintain good academic standing while supporting herself as a maid, she left Oberlin in 1912 with the intention of returning to complete her degree. On the recommendation of Julia Finney Monroe (1837-1930), Johnston was appointed as an English teacher at St. Augustine's College, an Episcopal boarding school for blacks near Raleigh, North Carolina. She held the post from 1912 to 1938. Johnston received the A.B. from Oberlin College in 1937 and the M.A. in Library Science from Kent State University in 1952 after twenty-two summers of study.

In 1938, Johnston resigned her post at St. Augustine's College and moved to Asbury Park, New Jersey, to the home of her sister, Ruth. In 1944, after several years of working as a domestic and teaching kindergarten, she found permanent employment at the Bordentown (New Jersey) Manual Training School for Negroes where she served as matron, teacher, and Dean of Girls (1952-55). In the aftermath of the 1954 ruling in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, the Bordentown school was converted to a facility for mentally retarded boys. Unemployed as a result, Johnston accepted the position of public school librarian in Elizabeth, New Jersey in January 1956, working until July of that year before retiring and moving to Cleveland to be with her deceased niece's husband. There, she was active in support of Karamu House, the multi-ethnic community arts project, the Cleveland Public Library, and the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio. In 1964, she was a delegate to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. During the last twenty years of her life, she was especially devoted to financing black education at Oberlin College. In a gesture of philanthropy rare among those of modest income, Johnston signed her financial resources over into a reversible trust with the college, drawing only a small monthly amount to meet expenses. Mary Johnston died on January 30, 1982. She was survived by her niece, Pauline Mary Johnston (1918-1957), her niece's family, and the family of her cousin, Theodore D. Phillips (Mus. B., Oberlin Conservatory of Music, 1924).

SOURCES CONSULTED

Lee, Catherine M., "Mary Elizabeth Johnston", student paper, 1988 Student Papers (19/5)

Oberlin Kindergarten Primary Training School Records (24)

Student file (28) of Mary Elizabeth Johnston

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